-by Krista Taylor
Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.
So often it is a top-down approach that is out of touch with the challenges of being in a classroom. But what if teachers took control of that and turned it on its head? What if teachers determined how they needed to grow and develop, and worked together to do so?
In 2013, during the after-graduation faculty celebration, my colleague, Josh, and I began discussing some of the concerns we had about our instruction. As the party wound down, and we began making our way to our cars to go home, we came to a powerful realization. Both of us had prioritized developing differentiation practices in our classrooms. Both of us were struggling with it. Both of us were frustrated with our perceived lack of progress. This discussion caused us to quite literally stop in our tracks. We spent the next hour standing on a street corner problem-solving how we could make the work easier and find greater success.
At Gamble, one of our long-time frustrations as a building has been how to support students to rise to the rigors of college preparatory, honors-level academics in an urban, public school where 70% of our students are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Like many urban, public schools, our students often come to us with below-grade level skills, poorly developed work habits, and a lack of academic buy-in. All too often, this combination of high expectations and low skills results in students with failing grades. How do we maintain high academic rigor for all students while also meeting students (especially our most-challenged ones) where they are? Is this not the crux of the conflict in most classrooms?
Although I teach 7th and 8th graders and Josh teaches 11th and 12th graders, we realized that we had both been working independently on finding solutions to this same struggle, and we extrapolated that there were likely others invested in the same work in other areas of our building.
We envisioned becoming a Montessori Secondary School where all learners are welcomed in classrooms, and where differentiation is so much a part of our instruction that it is no longer note-worthy to students. And classrooms where teachers are comfortable with meeting learners where they are and developing their skills, regardless of where that left them in proximity to standardized-test passage.
We had been unable to find a way to do this individually, but we thought we might be able to do it better with the support of each other and any other colleagues who might be interested in joining us. We approached Jack (our principal) with the idea of launching a voluntary differentiation pilot program in our building, and, after hashing out some of the details, we were given permission to broach this topic with our faculty and to elicit support from the staff of CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program).
We began by issuing this open invitation.
Additionally, we personally invited those who we felt would be most receptive. For example, Josh directly approached the intervention specialist on his team with whom he regularly collaborated, and I requested that both members of my newly-formed team join me in working on this.
Some people asked if they could earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for their participation. We took this request back to Jack who readily agreed to arrange this. A few other details were hashed out – how we would re-initiate the conversation in the fall, when we would schedule the first meeting, and what that agenda would look like.
Thus, from what started as a casual, street-corner discussion, a pilot project was born.
So, that’s it, right? Open the door to collaboration, the masses will come running, definitive answers will be found, and all will be well with the world. Well, no, not exactly.
Our group of volunteers met at the start of the year to establish what we wanted to accomplish together. Originally there were ten of us, but after this first meeting, we were reduced to just seven through self-selection. Initially this small number of participants felt very disappointing – where were the hoards of teachers flocking together to improve their practice? That was definitely what I had envisioned. However, in hindsight, I am convinced that our small size was one of the most critical components of our success. Joining our pilot was purely voluntary, and this ensured that only people willing to commit to doing this work in a positive and forward-thinking way joined our group. Those who didn’t share our vision opted out. This meant that while we didn’t have the numbers that I had anticipated, we also didn’t have the uncommitted, disengaged participants that I had worried about.
There is a large body of evidence suggesting that the way to shift institutional practices is to begin with the people with whom you have immediate buy-in. From their success, you will sway most others. This premise is known as the Diffusion Innovation Model and was initially purported by Everett Rogers in 1962. A large body of research supports Rogers’ theory that the spreading of new products or ideas is based on four factors: the innovation itself, human capital, time, and communication. After initiation by the “innovators,” the concept readily spreads to “early adopters” who ultimately influence the “early majority.” It is not necessary to address resistors, or the “late majority and laggards”, until there is a ground-swell of people on board who can carry them along.
Because our group was made up of volunteers who chose to work together in this way (our innovators and early adopters), we were free to develop into whatever it was that we believed would work for us. Although we were all teachers in the same building, we didn’t all work closely with one another on a regular basis. Our group represented a variety of grade levels and departments in our building – 7th and 8th grade, 11th and 12th grade, social studies, language arts, math, science, special education, and music. As a result, it was important that we developed clear expectations of our work together. The parameters that we established at our initial meeting were:
- we would meet once a month
- we would honor each other’s time by keeping meetings as close to an hour in length as possible
- we would value our time together by committing to attend meetings
- our focus would be on classroom differentiation as a means of growing all learners
- we would conduct focused, non-evaluative observations of each other to improve our practice – we called these “Friendly Feedback Observations.”
In the beginning, we shared our successes and our challenges. We quickly discovered that we were already doing a lot. Just stating differentiation as an intention at our initial meeting in September had motivated each of us to work toward furthering our practice in this area. Some of our reported successes were small in-roads: providing read-aloud options on a more consistent basis, using a wider variety of instructional groupings, or allowing students with prior piano experience to branch out into guitar exploration during music class. And some of our successes were quite significant: providing weekly checklists/work plans that were uniquely targeted to students’ needs, or individualizing assessments such that each student received different questions on a physics test. But we had our share of noteworthy challenges too, and we still had a long way to go to develop what we wanted to see in our classrooms.
We noted that our challenges clustered into four areas: differentiation of assessments, differentiation of assignments, differentiation of instruction, and differentiation of expectations. By looking at it this way, we quickly realized that we were putting the cart before the horse by starting with the products (the assessments and assignments) rather than the students (the expectations).
Through our conversations, we also recognized that we were all struggling with feeling comfortable with meeting students where they were and moving them forward along a continuum, even if they didn’t ultimately reach the grade-level outcome. For all our nose-thumbing, anti-testing bravado, we felt pretty nervous about championing the idea that not all students learn the same thing at the same time and reach the same place, and somewhat blindly trusting that this wouldn’t have terrible repercussions on our standardized test scores.
It was critical to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to ensure that we were maintaining appropriate expectations coupled with appropriate supports for all of our students. Together we were able to do what none of us had been able to satisfactorily do alone. We noted gains – even incremental ones – we dug deep into what best practice could look like, and collectively, we had more courage to take risks.
And while each month, we celebrated our successes; we also took a hard look at our challenges. Halfway through that first year, we remained dissatisfied by the number of students earning failing grades. How could this be? We had worked so hard! How could all of our efforts still have not been enough to support students? Josh and Matt had further developed their co-teaching model providing additional interventions to struggling learners. Beau was regularly differentiating assignments into three levels to support all students in accessing the general education curriculum. Kim was creating five different student checklists every week in order to allow for individually targeted assignments. Steve had spent hours developing a differentiated science unit. How were our students still falling short of our expectations? What were appropriate expectations? How would we know when we reached them?
Fortunately, Barb Scholtz, CMStep Practicum Director, was supporting and challenging us in our reflective practice. When this concern came up, she simply looked at us, and with this simple question, re-committed us to our mission. She asked, “Well, are they learning?” When we answered with a confident, “Yes,” her response was, “Then, how can they be failing?”
It sounds simple, right? If they are learning, if they are progressing, then that’s all we can ask of them, right? But what about standards-based grading? What about content mastery? What about pre-requisite skills?
Nothing in education is simple. We know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which notes that learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently.
We know about isolating the difficulty, or focusing on a new skill without adding in additional complexities.
And, perhaps, most importantly, we know our students. We know, as professionals, and as people who interact with them every day, what we can expect from them and how far we can push them. So, yes, if they are learning, they can’t possibly be failing. But too many of them were. What were we doing wrong?
So, back to the drawing board we went to try to find answers to our many complex questions. How can we inspire students to show what they know? How do we instill a work ethic in our students? What about the wooly beast of homework? How are our students’ developmental needs and socio-economic status related to each of these issues?
We turned to research to guide us. We looked at best practices in grading policies, strategies to improve rates of homework completion, and use of student self-evaluation tools.
We also invited one another into our classrooms for what we deemed “Friendly Feedback Observations.” We asked each other, as trusted professionals, to observe specific concerns in our practice and to provide both critical and supportive feedback. This not only elicited targeted suggestions for improvement, it also allowed us to see what we were each doing really well, and what techniques we could borrow to improve our own instruction.
We adjusted and enhanced our teaching practices again and again. Each of us did that a little differently. Each of us discovered inroads. None of us got it exactly right. But all of us made progress.
What I know for sure is that because of the commitment I made by joining this group, I pushed myself harder. When we began, differentiation was something that happened sometimes in my classroom, and, as a result, it was something that was somewhat uncomfortable for my students. Today, the vast majority of assignments are differentiated, and students expect this and discuss it openly. Those conversations sound like this:
“Is this assignment differentiated?”
“Do I have the right level?”
“Can I try Developing, and if it’s too hard can I move down to Discovering?”
“Do you think I should do Adventuring today?”
“I’d like you to try the Enrichment level. I think it will be more interesting to you as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.”
Differentiation is fluid, frequent, and has become the norm for my students. There is no stigma of cleverly-titled tracking groups like “Bluebirds” and “Robins.” Rather, each day, each student works at his or her instructional level for that particular concept in that particular moment.
This shift took three years, and it wasn’t just my classroom that was profoundly impacted by the work of our pilot group. Each of the participants experienced significant changes in practice, and throughout the course of the past three years, we have continued to review the research, implement shifts, examine our own data, and repeat this cycle again and again.
Have we found all the answers? No, not yet. Probably, not ever. But that’s not really the point. Our work with differentiation has grown so much. Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm. We now, of course, have bigger hopes and dreams for ourselves. Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.
But more importantly, through our research and discussions, we are challenging each other, and through our implementation of things we’ve discussed, we are improving our practice. And, more than that, we are supporting each other and helping each other hold fast to the dream of inspiring our students and guiding them to develop into well-rounded and educated adults. Isn’t that why each of us entered this field in the first place? And, in this intense time in education, it is so easy to lose that focus. But, through collaboration with each other, we can hang on to this lofty ideal.
You can begin building this spirit of professional collaboration and growth in your building, too. Our group was dedicated to increasing differentiation practices, but any professional issue could serve as a focus for a similar discussion forum.
Here are what we’ve found to be the necessary components to making a program like this effective:
- Grab the bull by the horns: whatever is the greatest challenge or frustration in your building or classroom, tackle that. Go ahead and look it in the eyes, and begin seeking solutions.
- Begin by making it voluntary; there is no room for naysayers. Keep in mind that some people may need a personal invitation, but no begging. The people who decline your invitation are not ready to be part of the first-wave of your pilot.
- Develop your objectives and procedures together. Focus on what you want from each other. What are your shared goals? How can you best support each other in achieving them? What limits and boundaries do people need to have respected? Along these same lines, any changes need to be approved by the group before being acted upon.
- Hold structured meetings as a way to honor everyone’s time and energy. Avoid allowing this group to become a de facto lunch break or happy hour. Value the work to be done.
- Resist the temptation to spend time complaining – while your group may not have a designated leader, you do need a facilitator who will lead the group toward the generation of solutions, and away from the slippery slope of negativity.
- Brainstorm together – there’s no reason why people should be working on the same things in isolation. Do it together, and you’ll be more successful and more energized.
- But don’t just brainstorm. Implement. Even if that means taking one baby step at a time. And, pick each other up when you fall. Because sometimes the ideas that sounded so great in theory, weren’t so great in reality. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be cheerleaders for each other.
- Hold each other accountable for implementation. But remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. We used our Friendly Feedback Observations for this, but there are other ways.
- Keep going. As you move forward, others will witness your success, and your influence will spread.
We have all been in those mandatory professional development workshops about which there are so many sarcastic memes.
We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.
We’ve all sat through umpteen meetings where concerning data is shared along with a plethora of quick-fix solutions, few of which seem realistic to implement in our classrooms.
While these types of trainings are likely to continue, you need not allow them to dictate your professional growth. Think about what you want to work on in your classroom. Seek out like-minded educators in your building, and set aside time to work on this together. Dig deep. Find strategies that are feasible. Try them out. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. And repeat this process.
This work leads to powerful, uplifting, and beneficial professional growth. All you have to do is decide what you want to work on, find others who want to work on that, too, and get started.